Two Minutes of Torah

Parashat Ki Tisa | Exodus 30:11−34:35

“Today I am a man; tomorrow I return to the 7th grade” goes the classic joke about religious maturity occurring at age 13 in Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, suggests an older age at which one should be counted as an adult: “When you take a census of the Israelite people…everyone from the age of twenty years up shall give.” Rashi and Ibn Ezra, two traditional commentators, suggest that this is the age at which one is capable of true understanding and should be counted as an adult. At age 13 we may understand our responsibilities in Jewish tradition — but it isn’t until age 20 that we are held fully accountable.
 
Car insurance companies have long known the difference between societal conference of responsibility and when it is actually likely to be carried out. Don’t even think about renting a car until your prefrontal cortex has reached a later stage of development around age 25. It makes good sense…the same sense we have known for some 2,500 years.
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat T'tzaveh | Exodus 27:20−30:10

Nestled within Parshat Tetzaveh, amidst detailed descriptions of the priestly garments we find a tantalizingly occult relic from the priesthood: the Urim and Thummim. These were divinatory tools the High Priest would consult when the human capacity for decision making was lacking:

Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Eternal. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Eternal at all times (Exodus 28:30).

Of the priestly accoutrements depicted in our parashah, the Urim and Thummim remain the most mysterious, for very little is known about how they were used. They do, however, point to the human heart's yearning for reassurance from the Divine. We see such yearning again in I Samuel where the Urim is listed alongside dream interpretation and consulting a prophet as sanctioned forms of communication with the Divine (I Samuel 28:6).

It is tempting to tie this all up in a nice package, with a moral and a lesson and a practical takeaway, but this is one of those Torah moments that elicit more questions than answers. We humans have a tendency toward cynicism and fear when faced with the unknown, but our parashah offers up these ancient, mysterious tools as an antidote. The existence of the Urim and Thummim offers us a hint as to how our spiritual ancestors sought information from the Divine, and invites us to continue that search in our own lives.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat T'rumah | Exodus 25:1−27:19

“God spoke to Moses saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them’.” This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, begins by creating a religious structure 180 degrees removed from the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. Instead of being forced to labor, they were invited to participate. Instead of being far removed from that which was sacred, they were instrumental in its creation. Each and every person had the chance to opt in — and the space for God’s presence was crafted through their actions.

The same is true today. As the theologian Joseph Soloveitchik reminds us, it is incumbent upon each of us to create a world in which God wishes to dwell. It can only happen when we opt in, each and every day, renewing our desire to live by our highest values and then following through with our actions.

-  Rabbi Aaron Meyer


Parashat Mishpatim | Exodus 21:1−24:18

Mishpatim, the rules laid out in this week’s appropriately-named Torah portion, are those commandments that inherently make sense, that come complete with obvious moral backing. (Their ideological opposites, chukim, are those commandments issued without apparent reason that are particular to the Jewish community.) Mishpatim should and have arisen in many thinking societies. Do not murder, take responsibility for your animals, do not ill-treat orphans all make sense to us and are “easy” to uphold when we are thinking and acting as our highest selves. So why are they commanded in Torah and not a separate, secular legal code?
In Jewish tradition, the two are not distinct as they are in American life. To be fully Jewish is to live in accordance with your highest values in the synagogue as well as on the street, in religious as well as secular contexts. To not murder makes sense in a cooperative human society and also reflects the spark of divinity we find in every human being. We do it (or, as the case may be, don’t do it) for secular reasons and religious reasons combined. May our every action reflect this reality.
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Yitro | Exodus 18:1-20:23

Metaphor abounds in our Torah; there is no shortage of poetic language used to describe God, God's relationship with us, and indeed, our experience in the world. Among my favorite metaphors within our tradition are those that invoke the natural world; especially animals. We have a classical example of such metaphor in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro. God calls to Moses from the mountain, instructing him to remind the Israelites of how God "... bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me." (Exodus 19:4) Rashbam, an 11th century French Torah Scholar (and grandson of Rashi) remarks that our metaphor is easy to understand. According to him, it might as well read, "I transported you safely over the sea in dry land just like eagles fly over the seas," emphasizing the speed and safety with which God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. But Rashbam's grandfather asserts that there is more we can glean from this metaphor.

"An eagle bears its young aloft on its wings," Rashi writes, "All other birds clutch their young between their legs underneath because they are afraid of another bird flying over them. The eagle, however, is only afraid of the hunter's arrow... It therefore places it on top of its wings saying: let the arrow rather pierce me than my young." Rashi's interpretation offers the possibility not only of efficiency, as Rashbam suggests, but of intimacy as well. The relationship  established between God & Israel at this moment is one of concern, nurture, and deep care.

How are we to understand our relationship with a God that can seem distant, indeed relegated to another time and place? If we are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day (and we are), and if we are meant to see ourselves in every generation as having been redeemed from Egypt (and we are) then perhaps we ought to imagine an intimate, caring and protective God who wants us to survive and indeed thrive, just as the eagle protects and supports its young.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat B'shalach | Exodus 13:17-17:16

Imagine the scene: you've just left Egypt with all of your belongings on your back, surrounded by everyone you know, and many whom you do not. You reach the Red Sea, only to realize that Pharaoh and his armies are hot on your heels. You have two options: certain death at the hands of the cruel leader whom you have just escaped, or possible death in the watery depths before you. And then suddenly, a third option: God causes the waters to part, and you tentatively step across the sand, timidity and disbelief turning into a mad dash for survival. You make your way across to dry land and turn around in time to see the encroaching armies swept up in the deepening tide... 
A stunned silence falls over the huddled masses, until you hear a singular voice ring out in song, the Song of the Sea - a song of gratitude and of wonder and of praise at the first true taste of freedom. The sound grows as the song moves through the throng of Israelites around you; family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers...
 
This is what we remember on Shabbat Shira: the third option which is God, and redemption, and freedom's hard-won song.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman

Parashat Va-eira • Exodus 6:2−9:35

Why do we drink four cups of wine during our commemoration of Passover? A historian might point out the parallels between the Greek symposium and the Passover seder, suggesting four cups was the ideal number to spark vigorous discussion without devolving into inebriation. A talmudist might guide us to the volume of consumption necessary to fulfill the mitzvah (four olive’s worth; Mediterranean olives, not pizza olives). A rabbi would suggest the answer is found in this week’s Torah portion.

"I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians," we read in this week’s Torah portion, the first of four promises made to the Israelites in Exodus 6:7-8. “I will deliver you from their bondage;” "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm;” and "I will take you to be My people,” round out these promises. In honor of God’s covenant with the people, we consume a glass of wine for each of these promises. A careful reading of the text, however, notes a fifth and final promise in the very next verse: "I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to your ancestors.” Our Passover seder, then, uses five cups of wine and not just four. The fifth cup, of course, is poured for Elijah the prophet, herald of the promises in this Torah portion!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Sh'mot • Exodus 1:1−6:1

“A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph,” we read in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, beginning both a literal new book of Torah and a metaphoric new chapter for the Israelites. While the first eight verses of the portion continue the narrative of Genesis, enumerating those families sojourning in Egypt, verse nine renders Joseph’s assistance to the Egyptian people and subsequent rise null and void as the new ruler sought to impose harsh new restrictions. “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Raamses.” It is a dramatic narrative device from which we might learn an important lesson.

Jews are natural story tellers, born perhaps of our long and rich history. Tales of “your grandmother did this” or “your crazy uncle did that” not only build resilience among our people but ensure the lessons of previous generations are not forgotten. Compare this to verse nine of our Torah portion, where history and prior success are ignored. Not only is this model presented as distinctly non-Jewish, it is also quickly shown to be ill-advised. Let us continue telling the stories of our tradition, turning them and turning them again, for important lessons have yet to be fully grasped.

-  Rabbi Aaron Meyer


Parashat Va-y'chi • Genesis 47:28−50:26

Teaching Us How To Say Goodbye

As we approach the end of the book of Genesis, our parsha features the death of not one, but two Genesis greats: Jacob first, and then his son Joseph. First, Jacob asks that upon his death he be treated with chesed v'emet, translated as "faithful kindness," requesting that his remains be buried in the family plot back in Canaan. Then, in an impressive moment of control, Jacob sits up in his deathbed to bless each of his sons individually, before drawing his feet back into his bed and then breathing his last breath.

Joseph's brothers remain unconvinced that he will not seek reprisals against their earlier treachery, and so they approach Joseph to beg his forgiveness. Here is what Joseph says, "though you intended me harm, God intended it for good in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive numerous people... thus did he comfort them and speak straight to their hearts." (Genesis 50:20 - 21) A few short verses later, Joseph, too, departs from the world.

According to Midrash B'reishit Rabbah, Jacob, in his dying, teaches us the "faithful kindness," is that which the living show the dead in performing acts of burial and eulogy. Joseph, in his dying, teaches us how to forgive - by speaking straight to the hearts of those who would seek our forgiveness. Each of these men offer us lessons in the difficult art of saying goodbye; reminding us that even in the final moments of a life, forgiveness and true kindness are attainable.

Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat Mikeitz • Genesis 41:1−44:17

“Seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of scarcity," Joseph interprets from Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s brilliance and places him in charge of the entire land of Egypt. Through conservation of now abundant resources, recognizing and preserving this bounty, Joseph helps the Egyptians survive the famine and teaches us all a lesson about the cyclical nature of life: bad times often follow good, good times often follow bad. 
The same lesson is visible in the beauty of our Chanukah candles. Long before the Talmud story of oil that burned for eight crazy nights, the Book of Maccabees recorded the Israelite effort to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot as soon as the Temple was rededicated. They waited — they fought —for dawn to emerge from the darkness; and it did. Good times often follow bad in the cyclical nature of life. Maintaining our faith and hope, as did the Maccabees, gives us direction and fortitude in the midst of struggle. 
Rabbi Aaron Meyer